Like Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks has great sincerity. Here is an actor who always
brings authority and truth to his roles - a man who you believe you can trust.
Witness his range of work from "Philadelphia" to "Saving Private Ryan."
Therefore, as he once said on an interview with Charlie Rose, the last thing he
would play is a serial killer. I can't see that ever happening, but a hit man?
Now that is an unusual change-of-pace, but don't be fooled. Hanks is still
authoritative and full of truth but he does manage to convincingly play "a bad
man" who kills people.
Based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, "The Road to Perdition" is set in
1931 in Chicago, the time of Al Capone and Prohibition. Hanks is Michael
Sullivan, the main enforcer for the grumpy mob boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman,
in another change-of-pace role). Rooney has been helpful and generous to Michael
and his family for so long that Rooney considers him family, much to the chagrin
of his own flesh and blood, Connor (Daniel Craig). Michael's eldest son, Michael
Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), is curious about his father's business and frequent
outings at night. One night, junior becomes witness to a murder, causing
problems for Michael Sr. and his family, which consists of his wife (Jennifer
Jason Leigh) and a younger son. Suddenly, a series of misunderstandings and
double-crosses occur, not to mention murder, and now Michael and his
presumptuous son are on the loose, eluding the death throes of Rooney's other
hit men on his payroll. One clever hit man doubles as a crime photographer. He
is Maguire (Jude Law), who is always hunched over and dresses like a mean
Charles Chaplin - his orders are to kill Michael, not the son.
Essentially, "The Road to Perdition" deals with father-son relationships in the
mob, a theme that has not emerged in the genre of mob crime pictures before. It
is also a continuing theme of dysfunctional families trying to come terms with
their own faults as evidenced by director Sam Mendes's spectacular debut film,
"American Beauty." This time, Mendes tries to fuse those elements in a crime
picture and the results are often dazzling, if also lacking some depth. This is
permissible since we are dealing with interactive behavior between Michael and
his son and his strained relationship with his surrogate father, Rooney. If only
there had been as much emphasis between Rooney and his real son, Connor - a
character who is disappointingly cartoonish (he has one good line - "this is all
so f***ing hysterical.")
"The Road to Perdition" has lots to recommend for all film fans and also for
those who loved Mendes as a real actor's director with "American Beauty." He
does not disappoint with most of the assured cast. Hanks brings measured
simplicity and restrained emotion to the ambiguous Michael, an antihero who is
simply a dad (or as Michael's son recalls in reliable voice-over narration, "he
was just my father.") Hanks is not playing a stereotypical Joe Pesci gangster
from a Martin Scorsese movie. Instead he opts for some humanistic touches to a
man who is only doing his job.
Paul Newman is also quietly effective and menacing as the older, wiser Rooney
who still loves Michael as if he was his own son, even if he wants him dead.
Jude Law also exudes the kind of charisma with his piercing eyes and rat-like
body language that can only come from a major movie star, and he is the real
star of the show. Every scene he is in, he steals it from reliable heavyweights
like Hanks and Newman. Law's final scene is a shocker. Unfortunately, Jennifer
Jason Leigh and Daniel Craig merely have throwaway roles and do not make any
"The Road to Perdition" is not quite a gangster picture (though there is plenty
of gunfire) and not quite a noir piece (though there are endless shots of rainy
nights). It is a family drama, though it does not have the scope and weight of
something like "The Godfather." I consider it a lark for Sam Mendes, who may go
on to greater things. This is first-class entertainment with prize-winning
performances by Hanks and Newman. Their piano duet scene is exemplary, and the
difference between attention to character detail versus attention to bullet-size
holes. I'll take the former.
Copyright © 2002 Jerry Saravia